Staring at me across a lunch of hot sausages and beans on a steamy July day, a smart Republican lawyer recites his favorite political parable:
"Once upon a time, a popular king moved into a tent with 100 subjects. One day the king did something that made 20 of his subjects very angry. So they left the tent. The king didn't care. He still had 80 loyal subjects. Then His Royal Highness did something else that made 20 more subjects very angry, and they left the tent. The king was left with 60 subjects. He tried to be more careful, but he stumbled and did something once again to make another 20 subjects mad. When they moved out, the king was left with just 40 subjects. He needed 45 to stay in power. He lost his crown and was thrown out of the tent. A Republican, of course, took his place."
A fresh story about a Bill Clinton scandal or some happy news about the Dow might have made the food more digestible. But for the GOP attorney -- who asks anonymity but is nonetheless a leading member of the Republican brain trust -- the parable of the king in the tent was far more entertaining.
It illustrates the strategy of the Republicans for defeating Gov. Roy E. "King Roy" Barnes in this year's election.
Several Republican strategists believe it doesn't much matter that Barnes has raised $14 million for TV advertising. Or that he has the historically overwhelming advantage of incumbency, that no modern Georgia governor has ever lost a bid for an endorsement term. Or even that the current crop of Republican challengers can be rated no better than "fair" -- and that's a stretch.
None of those things count. Here, in the eyes of the GOP generals, is what matters:
Barnes has made one group of voters after another angry over several specific acts.
Take the flag issue, for instance. Most Georgians did not find changing the flag particularly bothersome. But a handful of irate voters see changing the flag as an act of treason or worse -- an insult to Georgia's Confederate heritage. The flag change may have cost Barnes 10 percent of the vote. In many cases, had he refused to modify the banner, he would have won most of the current anti-flag crowd. Of course, he might have lost the entire African-American electorate by saying no to the flag change.
Then there is education reform. Why, heck, everybody is for education reform, aren't they? Row upon row of Georgia business leaders stood behind Barnes on the Capitol stairs as he rolled out his education-reform proposals. They applauded and cheered when he finished his declaration for reform. However, a seemingly small hitch developed. Many teachers read into his reform act an accusation that they were somehow to blame for Georgia's miserable schools. Acting on that one issue, those teachers joined the flag boys as hot-eyed Barnes haters.
A half dozen similar instances exist -- the Northern Arc project, outlawing video poker, inconvenient new rules for auto-emission testing, even moves to interfere with the traditional legislative meddling in granting paroles.
All these items have taken their toll on the Barnes administration. Unlike his predecessor, Zell Miller, the current governor has yet to find a magic bullet to offset nearly all the negatives. Miller's lottery and HOPE scholarship pulled him through to re-election even as his popularity dipped. (Miller almost lost re-election in 1994 because he tried to change the flag.)
By the time the Nov. 5 election rolls around, some of the Republican generals say they don't really care whether Barnes' challenger is Sonny Perdue, Linda Schrenko or Bill Byrne. The identity of the Republican candidate won't matter much, they say, because the election will amount to nothing more than a referendum on Barnes' performance.
If all those little groups who were offended by Barnes join forces, says the GOP big thinkers, King Roy will be expelled from the tent. That giant "no" vote would, of course, propel the first Republican in modern times into the governor's seat -- or into the king's throne -- or whatever.
The Democrats can poke a thousand holes into this theory. They say multitudes of voters applaud Barnes as one of the state's most visionary governors. He is completely honest and has moved to stamp out the slightest signs of corruption wherever he has found them. Besides, a monolithic African-American vote will deliver a whopping 25 percent of the total turnout to Barnes. Any Republican gubernatorial candidate is far behind, as a result, from the moment the polls open.
Those arguments seem sound. Still, political change is in the wind. Republican voters are nearly equal to Democratic voters in a state that is definitely trending Republican. And who can dispute the fact that King Roy has made many people angry as he sought to bring needed reform to several facets of Georgia government?
Besides, it might be refreshing to have a governor named Linda. Or Sonny or General Byrne.
Bill Shipp is editor of Bill Shipp's Georgia, a weekly newsletter on government and business. Send mail to P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30144 or e-mail: email@example.com